“What’s in today’s program?” I asked Kenney, the organizer of Kerala Tourism blog express project. “Elephants bathing, a yoga course, rowing and something I can’t tell you about – it’s a surprise” he replied with a secretive smile. I leaned back to my seat, anxiously waiting for the bus to begin.

We left Trivandrum, heading to Kollam. It was a 3-hours trip full of green landscapes, colorful cities, some intense glances and lots of on-the-go shots. I just couldn’t get enough of it!

First stop: Elephant Rehabilitation Centre! We arrived there at around 9.30 a.m. (tell me about an early wake up call…). The centre is located in Kotur and as Manoj – our guide – explained, it is where elephants with a history of abuse from every corner of India were transferred in order to recover. He added that it is common for wealthy people in India to own elephants as pets  as they cost around $20.000 – but that’s really nothing compared to the expenses made in order to feed them; imagine paying for 3kg of rice and huge amounts of leaves and greens every day.

I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of elephants kept in captivity but I followed the rest of the team near Neyyar River. My skepticism was replaced by astonishment when I first saw the breathtaking green landscape. Everything seemed so peaceful and calm. It lasted for a moment though, as next thing we knew 4 elephants passed us by heading straight to the river. It was time for their bath! (Tip; Between 9.30 a.m. and 11.30 a.m. when the elephants take their bath, is the ideal time to visit the Centre.)

I approached them, curious like a child and started looking at one of them. At first, I just stood there awkwardly. But when I felt comfortable enough I approached its escort and asked him if I could pet the elephant and share a photo with him. Shortly after that, it was bath time! It is such an unbelievable experience – something you have to see for yourself. The elephants were laying still in the water, waiting for their bath; Magical!

Our next stop was the Sivananda Ashram Kerala Yoga center; one of the most important yoga centers in India. A campus as we might call it where yoga lovers from around the globe gather in order to meditate and experience a unique spiritual and physical exercise. The center also provides Teacher’s Training Courses certifying yoga instructors to teach all around the world.

 

We wandered around the gardens and the large yoga exercise areas and we learned a few of the basic – and easiest – asanas when they informed us that a vegetarian meal was waiting for us at the campus’ restaurant.

Restaurant meaning an empty space with large windows and no furniture at all except for a big sink and 3 buckets filled with food. We looked each other for a moment, waiting to be seated. Instead, two huge straw mats were set as a table with 37 empty trays alongside. On the floor, exactly! Right where we sat waiting for the food to be served.

Two elderly women carried the buckets with food, serving rice, 4 different types of sauce and vegetables. So where are our knives and forks? Anything? We shared deeply shocked looks as Roja, one of the hosts of Kerala Blog Express confirmed that, yes we would have to use our hands to eat.

It’s one of the most shocking – and amazing at the same time – experiences I had in my life; grabbing the rice using my 3 fingers, trying to mix it with the sauce and vegetables and finally, eat it. No silverware, no bread, no napkin. Incredible, isn’t it? After we finished eating, we had to wash our own tray.

We got on the bus, still in shock and headed to one of the most luxurious hotels in Kollam; the Raviz Resort & Ayurneda Spa located near Ashtamudi Lake.

Dancers wearing traditional costumes welcomed us, playing music and singing while girls with colorful sarees painted our forehead and offered us necklaces made of cardamom.

This spectacular welcome continued as we moved to the back of the hotel with a view to Ashtamudi Lake. Coconuts with straws, tea, candies and a boat for a tour around the lake, waited for us there. After that, we all got in canoes and played little explorers, rowing around the shore, teasing each other all the time.

Right before nightfall, they had another surprise for us; the manager of Raviz Hotel, offered a beautiful sari to every girl and a dhoti to every man. Of course, this wasn’t enough; girls from the hotel came to our rooms and helped us put on the traditional costume and enjoy our dinner dressed like…Bollywood stars!

While Rejitha – a nice and sweet 25-year-old girl – helped me wear the 3-meters long sari, I took the chance to learn more about the Indian culture and way of thinking. She completely changed everything I used to think about their beliefs, as she told me that her goal was to complete her studies and travel around the world and not to marry someone and have kids.

After half an hour of chit-chatting and struggling with the sari, she was about to leave when I asked; “What if I have to use the bathroom?”, only to receive a “Good luck then” reply. I laughed to myself and decided not to drink wine or even water during the night as I headed to the hotel’s garden. The most perfect Bollywood party had been set up there filled with spicy food, chefs, music and lots and lots of lights that made us feel like the true stars of the evening!